Last summer I was driving down Barkly Street near the Whitten Oval and spotted some teenage boys, wearing Bulldogs paraphernalia, out for a stroll. My first thought was how good it was to see local youths proud to be out in the red, white and blue, a sign of our recent successes. It was very different to my own childhood; even though my alma mater (the prestigious St Peter Chanel, Deer Park) was about as far west as you could then go, kids displaying allegiance to the battling Footscray team were few and far between. It could even get you beaten up in the schoolyard.
Then I did a double-take. There was something vaguely familiar about those kids. Were they - could they actually be? - some of our new recruits? Surely they were too young, with their spindly legs and pimply faces, to take the field, being niggled, monstered, bashed and punched by thugs like Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is and Toby Greene? (in fact, let's just say the whole Acronyms team).
Soon after, my sense of time passing was again turned on its head. I was disoriented by the news that Libba The Second had become a father. It wasn't that, so much, that disturbed my equilibrium, but the fact that it means that his feisty, competitive father is now a grandfather to little Oscar. (What it means for the Libba Sisters is too complex to untangle). And then, this week, we learnt that Mitch Wallis had also become a dad. I couldn't come to terms with the idea that Wallis & Libba Seniors, whose debuts I remembered clearly, whose careers I'd followed so closely, were now dandling the new generation from their (somewhat arthritic) knees.
I was still bewildered about how time was speeding past me when I drove to the new home of Libba Sister Two last Thursday night. She's no longer living in the Rising Sun apartment blocks, where five short years ago we sat together on the couch, watching us defeat the Swans.
The memory of that victory holds a special place in all our hearts. It was THE win; the one which made everyone sit up and take notice. Bob Murphy called it 'the best win ever'. I can still remember the look in the eyes of the stalwarts, Dale Morris, Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Bob himself: they knew something special was brewing, that there'd be another crack at a flag. If their ageing bodies could just hold up...
Yes, it was a watershed, a glimpse of the talent, drive, and self-belief nurtured by Bevo Our Saviour, a taste of the rampaging, unafraid Men of Mayhem-style footy that would become our 2016 trademark.
Actually...some of the facts don't really fit that narrative.
Immediately after, we lost the next four games. And 16 months later when we lined up in the Grand Final, only 12 players from the 'watershed' victory took the field. Michael Talia, Nathan Hrovat, Koby Stevens, Ayce Cordy, Lukas Webb, Lin Jong, Mitch Honeychurch and Stewart Crameri: all these were among those who fell by the wayside.
Who could have known then, that Bob himself, starry-eyed and in love with the game that afternoon, dreaming of seeing just 'one more song', would be watching from the sidelines as Our - His - Boys fulfilled their destiny.
How quickly does the footy caravan move on - brutal, swift, relentless. Tonight, there are only three 'survivors' (Bont, JJ and Macrae) from that 'coming-of-age' 2015 encounter; yet again, the Western Bulldogs team is the most youthful of the round.
The two new fathers are playing this evening, alongside two other father-sons; Zaine Cordy, a premiership player at just 19, and Rhylee West (quite possibly the only player who has come back from the pre-season shorter). It's a moment for the romantics when all four Sons Of Guns combine together at one stage in a passage on the wing.
They're playing alongside our charismatic captain, who's putting on quite the masterclass. Over recent times I've been preoccupied by worrying about Bont; whether he is ready for the captaincy, how he's dealing with the pressure of being identified as susceptible to physical niggle (make that outright harassment). I've had a sense of regret that he's experiencing now the brutality and disappointments of footy, fearful that he could lose his sheer enjoyment of the game. Tonight, those fears are vanished; I can just revel in his artistry, his unique mix of grace and power. And yet when he flies for a breathtakingly courageous mark, I'm reminded that he's not that kid any more. His big frame smashes against his equally brave opponent; the Bont 2020 is quite the beast.
Playing as he did this night, there is surely no better player in the competition.
Around Bont the other 'kids' are more than all right. I haven't seen a 19-year-old as strong and tenacious as Bailey Smith...maybe he's what we thought The Long-Departed Lair Jake Stringer would turn out to be. The deeds of 205 cm Tim English, who covered more than ten kilometres on the night (I feel fatigued just thinking about it) are astonishing. And as Bont (all of 24-years-old himself) reminded the media afterwards, Tim is 'only 22 and still developing.'
We also had a debutant on the night. Maybe 18-year-old Louis Butler was one of those scrawny kids I saw outside the Whitten Oval. (I was reassured to read that the kid had prepared meticulously, leaving no stone unturned to ensure he meets required professional standards; in his little interview on the Bulldogs website he answered, as all aspiring AFL footballers must, that his favourite movie was: 'The Shawshank Redemption.' )
It's one of my favourite parts of the game, seeing new players, with their innocent joy about just being out there, their sense of wonder and adventure still intact. This time last year Louis was a schoolboy captaining Brighton Grammar, watching games on TV; now he's playing against 250-game player Josh Kennedy and joining in the scrum of players running to congratulate Bont on a huge goal, reaching up to ruffle his skipper's mane of sweaty hair.
It was a promising debut: Louis was neat, brave and composed. Yet mixed with my hopes for his future I felt a familiar pang of loss when I saw him run out for the first time. He is now the bearer of number 18, last worn by Fletcher Roberts in 51 games that could easily be described with lukewarm phrases like serviceable; last season Fletch was quietly, and with little apparent acrimony, delisted.
Other clubs didn't come knocking for our premiership full-back; at 26, his career as an AFL footballer is over. Few, but all those of us who were there, would remember that he had two kicks, and two marks, in the 2016 premiership team. And now Fletch works with homeless young people; he has a degree in psychology; and was recently made a life member of our club.
In more ways than one Fletch has left big shoes for Louis to fill.
Louis is of course, in one of those confusing rituals that I don't understand, doused with Gatorade after playing in his first win; after the injuries we'd suffered on the night, I was on tenterhooks fearing that several of our players would slip and collide with each other on the wet surface, rupturing multiple ligaments and developing career-ending concussions in some sort of cartoonish nightmare.
I kept thinking, the next day, about how fast the seasons spin by. At this rate, it will only be a blink of an eye before I see Oscar Liberatore and Charlotte Wallis debuting in the red, white and blue. I imagine myself drowning in nostalgia; telling tales of how I was there in 2000 won a famous night when Grandpa Tony Liberatore wrapped Scott Lucas in crunching tackles, making sure our arch rivals the Bombres did not go through the season undefeated.
I'll be reminiscing about the day in Perth when Grandad Steve Wallis split Brett Heady fairly down the middle with a brutal shirtfront, triggering a wild brawl and years of animosity between ourselves and the West Coast Eagles. But I'll be trying NOT to remember the day that Charlotte's dad Mitch suffered an agonising broken leg, and like Bob, missed playing in the 2016 premiership.
Maybe I'll be eagerly awaiting news about other additions to the dynasty, having heard on the grapevine promising reports of young Horatio and Hortense Cordy (they can't go back to names like Neil and Brian ever again I guess).
I'm drifting backwards as well as forward in time, thinking about the men who played in the 2015 'greatest win ever'; how some of them went on to be part of the 'greatest ever' premiership, but plenty didn't. Sorrowful that we never really got to say goodbye to Fletcher Roberts whose career was so much more than serviceable; hoping that footy and life is ...just...kind... to our new number 18 Louis Butler.
Drift back on the 'carousel of time' (a phrase from a Joni Mitchell song) to the 2015 blog post about the match against Sydney ... where we all began to believe.
Bont was playing just his 20th match, and Fletcher Roberts was playing his eighth.....
There's been time a-plenty, in the downright weirdness of the 2020 season, for the Bulldog Tragician to contemplate that essential Tragician question. If a crowd isn't there, to chant, to yell, to boo, advise the umpires on decisions they may have got wrong, alert our players of an impending run-down, even to sit in glum silence: can it be said it really happened?
I've traditionally been a slow starter each season.Years of experience mean I ignore all those 'the Boys are flying' conversations; it takes me a while to regain my barracking mojo and invest in a new group. I usually spend most of round one confused by new hairstyles, numbers and tattoos, though I'm always up for some hypocritical criticism of those whose physical condition doesn't meet my exacting standards.
Watching in lockdown hasn't helped my rusty adjustment to 2020; I became excited hearing that 'Keath' was selected in the backline, before belatedly realising that this was no longer our former, flinty skipper.
I was confused at the sight of our new number 17: Josh Bruce looks uncannily just like its former inhabitant, now doing something even more important than footy, shining a light on depression and the mental health issues that saw him too soon lost from our game - a recollection that was both inspiring and melancholy.
A listless Round one performance in the shadow of coronavirus didn't really get me, as they say in footy circles, 'up and about'. Then came the great footy lull. The players, our club, the competition as a whole receded from our sight. Personally I hoped the whole season would just be cancelled. The valiant efforts of our social media team to keep footy relevant to us didn't hit the mark. Unfortunately the Tragician is not interested in awkward videos of our players quoting a line from their favourite movie, and my Mothers' Day in isolation was not enlivened by vox pops about which player is the biggest 'Mama's boy' (um, seriously?!)
When footy finally returned and we took on the Saints there was little to excite. Selections that even by the eccentric standards of Bevo Our Saviour were baffling, our skills were poor; we looked every bit a bottom four side. I viewed the dismal effort home in silence, though there may have been the occasional whimper at the prospect of another...surely not another?... wasted year.
And yet, despite... or was it because of?...our poor performance my interest was flickering back to life. I was turning to the back pages of the papers again; I felt those prickles of anger as the media piled mercilessly on, as Bont was pilloried. And I couldn't be indifferent when our next opponent was those Acronyms - a collection of the most unlovable individuals ever to appear on a football field. In our last encounter they'd launched cowardly and vicious attacks on our team. I only needed to think of Bont pinned to the ground and set upon by Toby Greene, and recall that the Obnoxious One got off scot-free, for that red mist of rage to re-appear.
They'd pummeled us in other ways too. Unprepared for their assaults, we'd put in a shocker. Remembering the humiliation, I was suddenly alert, even alarmed. I was 'up and about'.
We couldn't - we absolutely must not - lose this one.
The teams took to the field: the not-so-indifferent Tragician took to the couch.In another sign I was regaining my mojo, I speedily identified that yet again an unjust advantage had been gifted to the Giants; they were only too familiar with playing in empty stadiums and canned crowd noise (and who amongst us hasn't suspected the deployment of cardboard cutouts?) throughout their short and overly entitled history.
I was apprehensive for our Bont. How can this now be his weekly fate, to be set upon and bullied? My mind traveled back to 2016 (OK, this happens a lot), the first time I can recall him being physically targeted, by a posse of Fake Tough Guys from North Melbourne. In just his third season, Bont was unruffled, even amused by their snarling efforts. He was still in that carefree blissful state, where the sky was the limit on his potential; a media darling, a Golden Boy who could do no wrong.
Early in that contest Bont (who of course went on to be best on the ground) smothered a kick from one of those snarling Tough Guys (I believe his name is Ferret-oh, or something like that). Bont could not contain his delight as we rose to our feet, jubilantly applauding this victory for the Good Guy. I fondly dubbed his expression in that moment: 'the Bontempelli smirk.'
There was no smirk from our under-siege new captain; within seconds the predictable ambush began. Stuck at home, we were as impotent (though nowhere near as smiley) as those cardboard cutouts, unable to see whatever outrages the Giants were inflicting, having to rely on the commentators to excitedly inform us that there was a stoush between 'Celeb' Daniel and Jeremy Cameron. Though we needed no commentary to inform us who would have started it.
Our Boys, it was soon blessedly clear, were switched on. Their hands in close were quick and clean; they refused to be wrested away from the ball, in fact the likes of 19-year-old Bailey Smith just ripped it away from those in Orange, while every time Bont was bumped and pushed, men in red, white and blue were instantly on the scene.
Right in the centre of things was Libba The Second, with his familiar crab-like gait, his dodgy knees, the big heart inherited from his dad. 'Serial Antagonist' would be his title on a business card. From the moment I saw his pesky little fake arm-of-consolation around Coniglio when he gave away a free, I knew we'd somehow be all right.
In typical Bulldogs-style our dominance all over the field didn't translate into the sort of comfortable buffer it deserved. We were wasteful, our despised rivals always just a little close to comfort.
Right on three quarter time the brawl we all knew was coming finally broke out. Every Bulldogs player was in there; new guys Keath and Bruce; the young bull Bailey Smith; frail-looking Toby McLean and Dailey Bailey, the second-gamer Laith Vandermeer; Bont's staunch good mates Dunkley, Wallis and Crozier who'd all been superb; and needless to say the mustachio-ed hard-nuts Cordy and ...of course... Libba.
'GWS and the Bulldogs ab-so-lutely hate each other!' shouted BT with barely disguised glee.
He got most of the players' names wrong all evening, but BT certainly got that one right.
As the brawl finally broke we could see, for the third time in the match, that Aaron Naughton's jumper was ripped to shreds. But as he donned a spare number 40, I'm pretty sure I spotted ... yes, it had to be... a smirk on the face of our young, carefree up-and-comer.
(Mysteriously, later on, the AFL fined a raft of players from both teams for the quaint offence of 'engaging in a melee' ... while failing to identify some clear cuffs to Bont's head from behind by two of those wearing orange. Their names, just in case any of you at AFL headquarters need clarification, were Sam Jacobs and Jeremy "One Grand Final possession" Finlayson).
When the final siren sounded, I suddenly realised that we hadn't won a game since last August - though unlike other Bulldogs teams I've followed, at least a coronavirus intervention rather than ineptitude explained the long gap between wins.
We couldn't stand on the seats and cheer them off the arena, but we were still with them as they marched behind their young captain, entered the change rooms and, a respectable 1.5 metres apart, danced on their toes and clapped their hands. How young they all looked, just kids really, back able to do what they loved, together: nothing could stop a huge emotional pile-on to celebrate the win and what it represented.
Bevo was in top form at the press conference. He may have come close to a smirk himself, as he described as 'peculiar' the weird (and spectacularly unsuccessful) Acronym tactic of getting Haynes to do the coin toss, a tactic supposedly designed to instill into Bont a state of nervous terror and remorse for his many crimes.
The brawl was described by Bevo as a 'brouhaha.' (Dictionary definition: an episode involving excitement, confusion, turmoil, etc., especially a broil over a minor or ridiculous cause).Well-played, sir!
He outdid himself when referring to the controversial Haynes incident in 2019, alleged to be the catalyst of the rivalry by the Acronyms camp (still fail to understand how they view Toby Greene's vicious eye-gouging as morally equivalent to Bont's bump). What occurred between Bont and Haynes last year, explained Bevo, was: 'incidental contact when Haynes left his kick late and slipped under the shoulder of Marcus.'
The Bulldogs' players aren't the only ones who regained their mojo on Friday night.
As for the Tragician I woke the next morning with a raspy throat. There was no need for me to present at Bunnings for a coronavirus test, however; the source of the ailment was familiar. I'd been, perhaps, a little exuberant (I'm sure Bevo could find a better word) on the couch throughout the evening, particularly during the brouhaha. I'd strained my voice as I yelled and booed; I'd even identified a couple of players whose physical condition didn't meet my exacting standards. I'd prayed and barracked and cheered for Our Boys to bring this one home, finally invested in whatever lies ahead in this strangest of footy seasons.
It was exactly like 2016.
It was nothing like 2016.
Our quest for a flag again depended on defeating the Orange-Clad Acronyms at Soul-Less Stadium. Hordes in red, white and blue were making the trek, where we would vastly outnumber the fans of the AFL’s youngest ‘franchise’ (never was a term more apt).
We had finished the season seventh. Just like in 2016.
But, back then, we’d been in the eight for the whole season. We’d spent large chunks of the year as a top four side, won an impressive 15 games, had featured in premiership discussions before a spate of injuries. In 2019, we’ve been, well, mediocre at times - inconsistent too - before running into form at the right time of year. It was still hard to know the full merit of our last three victories and how much we had genuinely improved.
Still, the Libba Sisters had to be there, just like in 2016. With more time to get organized we took a plane instead of recreating our legendary preliminary final roadtrip. (Could it be the Libbas are getting uppity due to their celebrity status – too big these days for their size five boots?)
Our plane was delayed. When we finally got into the air, the trip was bumpy. We circled Sydney endlessly because of howling winds. The turbulence was nauseating. People were vomiting.
It was a harbinger, in fact, of what was to come.
Our seats were in that same bay as 2016. In front of the spot where Easton took a screamer, near where 'Keith' Boyd did a desperate toe-poke of the ball to get it to JJ, resulting in the famous and electrifying goal by Bont.
We walked in, casting scornful looks at the spruikers handing out plastic orange flags. Many of the Dogs’ fans were still stranded at airports back in Melbourne. We joked, when a plane flew above us a few minutes before the match began, that desperate Dogs’ supporters would be clamouring to be parachuted straight down into the stadium.
The Dogs’ fans that had got there on time are wearing Fightback memorabilia and faithful old scarves. Mine has my badges: of Bont as an endearingly dorky 18-year-old, and of Jackson Macrae with his trademark shy smile. My little premiership cup symbol, bought at the Western Oval the day after we won the flag, is carefully affixed to its increasingly tatty fabric.
Many others are wearing the precious t-shirts that list the premiership 22. It’s still hard to fathom, that only eight will take the field today, such a short time later. And that even though we were one of the youngest ever premiership sides with a game average of only 82, here we are again with a list still more scarily youthful and inexperienced; we average just 76 games.
I find myself trying to recall my mindset in 2016. Strangely, for something I've relived so often, it's a bit of a blur. I don’t know if I expected Our Boys to win; it was more that I had an urgent and compelling conviction of having to be there, to be witness to, and validate, the strength of their dreams. They were so young, and unafraid. They swept us along, is the only way I’ve ever been able to describe it.
It would have been curmudgeonly, or at the very least impolite, to scoff at their innocent question: ‘Why not us?’
It felt, while the Libbas travelled all those miles in our car, almost as though the result didn’t count (not that we would have felt that way if we'd driven home as losers). Because this team weren’t shackled and burdened by our hopes, it seemed only good manners to show them that we were daring to dream as well. And instead of being crushed by that expectation, the 2016 heroes rode that yearning as lightly as though they were surfing a wave.
Here in 2019, I don’t have that same romantic mindset. I’m hopeful, but beset by some of those mundane questions of any home and away match rather than the trance-like fog of 2016. Were our selections right? How would the break affect our momentum? Would we withstand a more physical challenge from The Acronyms than they’d been able to offer only three weeks earlier?
I sense that my fellow fans share some of my air of caution, or perhaps it’s just that there’s not quite so much at stake. Of course, we give Our Boys a standing ovation, we boo the Acronyms. But the primal, raw edge is not quite there.
Maybe we think just being here, again, will be enough: to make lightning strike twice.
The marketing gurus of GWS have worked assiduously this time to counter the Bulldogs' fans raucous edge. Helpfully, those in rather new looking orange scarves are regularly implored to: ‘Make some noise!’ When this receives a tepid response, technology comes to the rescue, and some canned crowd applause floats out of the stadium’s speakers.
The match gets underway; the signs far too quickly point in the wrong direction. The Acronyms rough Our Boys up at the stoppages; every mark is accompanied by knees in the back of a prone player. (Little do we know, at that point, the worst of it).
Our youth and inexperience are exposed; we never get a chance to settle into the tempo of finals footy. Our most potent weapon, our midfield, are shut down and ineffective.
There are only a few minutes where a Bulldogs’ victory seems even slightly possible: when Bont lines up for a shot that would have put us in the lead (unlike 2016, he misses); and whenever the 19-year-old boy wonder, the ‘Astro-Naut’ flies for the ball. Even as the match slips away, I can't help but be captivated, drawn to watch him and him alone. At one moment he's energetically leading for the ball on the wing; then when that is foolishly ignored in favour of another lacklustre bomb vaguely in the direction of our forward line, he still offers a shepherd for whoever ended up with the ball. I utter a silent prayer of thanks, even amid the growing carnage. For years to come, the high-flying 'Astro-Naut' is ours.
Minutes later, he lies crumpled on the deck. A pall hangs over our crowd. Something worse than the defeat which is now inevitable, we fear, has just taken place.
We are silent by now, actually relieved that our opponents have so few rabid supporters or passion for their club to taunt us. Some of our own fans begin to slip away in the last quarter. We remain to the end, dry-eyed and somber. But there isn’t the gut-wrenching anguish that can accompany finals failure; the contest had been too one-sided for that.
We didn’t perform at our best, but even so, it's evident our best would realistically not have been enough for us to travel deep into this finals series. Next year could - will - be different. Especially with reports that Naughton’s injury wasn’t quite as bad as it initially appeared.
During the match one of my brothers back in Melbourne had texted us, saying Toby Greene had gouged the Bont, but we didn’t notice anything at the time, and in the initial few hours post-match, there was little commentary about any tactics that were untoward.
But soon the unsavoury details emerge. Our Golden Boy, Bont, had been relentlessly and illegally harassed. A crude punch to his stomach, over the boundary line, out of the field of play, had him doubled up in pain. He was set upon in a pack, the hands of Toby Greene clawing at his face, grabbing his hair, smacking his head on the ground like a bowling ball.
Our fans are red hot with anger as photos emerge, of Bont with scratches on his face and a black eye. Himmelberg is offered a fine for his punch; it is woefully inadequate. Greene is sent direct to the Tribunal. 'Serious misconduct' is the rather vague charge.
We hope our fears of lenient treatment are irrational and paranoid, for surely the sickening footage is too ugly to be ignored.
But then the penalty is announced – a fine, meaning Greene, despite his appalling record of 16 previous tribunal appearances, can continue to play in the finals series.
It’s laughable. But the Bulldog Tragician is not laughing at all.
My mind travels back to the 2016 Preliminary Final. There was a memorable, brutal clash between Clay Smith and Ryan Griffen. It was a pivotal moment in that gruelling contest. The Acronyms led by two goals in the third quarter. They were surging; we were tiring. Less than a minute remained in the quarter.
Multiple, exhausting, desperate pressure acts by Our Boys propelled the ball forward into our forward line. It dribbled towards Smith and Griffen.
Two men, former team-mates, friends outside the football field, were intent on one object, the ball. Each knew that he had to summon every ounce of strength and will to win it, if his team were to triumph.
It was Clay who prevailed in the most brutal of body clashes as he used himself as a battering ram, but there was no half-hearted effort by Griffen either. The ball spilled free, 'Celeb' Daniel pouncing, for a goal that was precious. Indeed, every goal was precious that night.
It was everything that is wonderful and frightening and awe-inspiring about our game: breathtaking courage and bravery by men hurtling into each other, unprotected by armour or helmets, prepared to break bones for their team, their cause, their fans.
I think of the contrast with the actions of Greene and Himmelberg, characterized by spite, meanness and most of all cowardice.
I hate seeing the footage of Bont, the incredulous look on his face as Greene attacks him on the ground. I hate thinking of his family having to watch and fear for their son and brother. I hate thinking of the kids wearing Bont's number four guernsey learning that this can happen, with virtually no consequences, on a football field.
I wonder what Bont's thoughts are now that his opponents’ malice is condoned and endorsed.
How does he feel about the fact many in the footy media chortled and enthused about the ‘toughness’ of his attackers, and some even questioned Bont’s mental fortitude?
He had failed in a big match, some crowed; was our worst player on the day, gloated others; needed to 'harden up,' opined still more.
i'm already beginning the gradual, yearly process of retreat into obliviousness about footy. The grand final will come around; Our Boys won’t be there, a familiar enough scenario in my many years of devotion to the Bulldogs’ cause. One thing’s certain: this year I’ll stay attuned long enough to barrack with extra venom for Anyone But The Acronyms. Uncharitable thoughts will cross my mind whenever Toby Greene or Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is goes near the ball. The sight of Leon Cameron in the box or arm-in-arm with the players who carried out these tactics will bring on the same nausea as that plane trip.
Still, however the finals play out, the 2019 season is drawing to a close. With luck, I’ll avoid any news of delistings or players out of love with our club long before we’re out of love with them.
Soon I’ll be doing my annual proclamation that I just don’t care about footy any more. It will have more conviction than usual this year as I contemplate the stupidity of footy machismo and the AFL’s feeble approach to player well-being when it conflicts with their determination that their franchise club must succeed.
Aaron Naughton will have surgery, and with the boundless resilience of a man not yet 20, begin flying for marks again in practice matches on 40 degree days (while The Tragician turns the airconditioning up full bore). It’s entirely possible that in 2020 a number 33 badge will make its debut on the Tragician’s not-so-lucky scarf (how many chances can that god-damn scarf get?). I'll pin it next to Jack Macrae. I don't need to update his, because he still looks the same as the day he was drafted, having failed to adopt strange mohawk haircuts, blonde tips, or mystifying Chinese character tattoos.
But I might get a new one of Bont, as he is now with his flowing locks and imposing frame, for next year he will be a 24-year-old man coming into his best years.
As I store away the precious badge featuring dorky young Bont, I’ll be remembering what I wrote in 2014, just a few games into his career. I was breathless with excitement about all the things he could be, predicting best-and fairest awards, premierships, Norm Smith medals and Brownlows (I could be right on those last ones some day too):
….And how much do we need that injection (not of the Danks variety) of hope to bring numbers back to our matches. I'm imagining a new generation of kids getting starry-eyed about football again, number four badges selling like hotcakes (though I should be past such frivolities, I'm all set to get one myself).
Some time soon, I guess it's possible The Bont may experience a natural form slump, and even play a shocker. Not yet 19, his body may soon cry out for a rest. As the years roll on, The Bont will experience (PLEASE, PLEASE let it be at our club for his whole career) the natural ebbs and flows of a footballing life. Disappointments, tough days at the office, and heartbreaking losses. Fickle fans. Injuries, maybe even lonely stints in rehabilitation. Times when footy does not seem as easy, joyous and carefree as it must at the moment.
There will be more brilliant, match-winning games from Bont. I'll look forward to seeing him glide with that mix of elegance and power through the hurly-burly of the match, doing things only Bont can.
But I still wish for him and all of us that love him, that in the wonderful career that he’s still carving out, there was never a place for those moments of violence from thuggish Toby Greene.
It was ten minutes before the start of our final 2019 home and away match. I was sitting on the couch, waiting, calmly.
There were no early warning signs that the first virulent outbreak of Tragician thinking for 2019 was about to begin.
The facts were that the Dogs 'only' had to win to make the finals, while our opponents had little incentive to win... unless they could thrash us by more than 90 points.
I hadn't made it to Ballarat for this critical game (more on that later). And I wasn't initially perturbed that our opponents for the day had a bit of a tradition of raining on our parade. Our Boys should ...no, make that would... get the job done.
But then, the Adelaide coach was being interviewed pre-match. He was asked how they were approaching a match that was effectively a dead rubber. Don Pyke made all the right noises about them giving it their best shot.
Still, I remained unconcerned.
Until the interviewer, David King, declared with a smile: 'I guess it would help if there was a ten-goal to none first quarter.' Pyke chuckled along with the joke.
The Tragician was no longer relaxed, calm or anywhere near unconcerned. She was certainly not chuckling.
A ten-goal first quarter without the Bulldogs scoring?
It was possible! It could happen! After all, nobody had predicted our 21-goal-to-zero scoring binge against the Bombres two weeks ago, when we beat them by 104 points, if I remember rightly. (I paused, just fractionally, from my catastrophising mindset, to smirk ungraciously at the memory).
I was caught, unawares, by the sudden desperate knowledge that we could..might...fail even in this 'must win/raging favourites' scenario.I was shocked, too, by the fact that I was at the mercy of these emotions at all. I'd sailed through most of 2019, mainly nonchalant and able to stick to the mantra Bevo Our Saviour had rather plaintively asked us to adopt last year: Living in the now.
It could mean only one thing. The untimely return of Tragician thinking, where past horror shows of Bulldog capitulations spin before my eyes in an awful but vivid slideshow.
I was blindsided by the re-emergence of such emotions. I'd reached acceptance that we were a young, inconsistent, rebuilding team, and that endless questioning of what had happened since 2016 was futile. It held me in good stead throughout the first half of a season that never seemed to develop a rhythm. Promising wins were followed by disappointing losses. The hesitant beginnings of attachment to new players was quickly counter-balanced by the retirement announcements of premiership heroes and a perplexing lottery of selection decisions.
There was little of the irresistible momentum of 2015 and 2016. I had no urgent sense that anything special was brewing. I watched our wins and the more frequent losses with a certain detachment. My passion for the club wasn't waning, but just for now, was somehow muted.
I didn't read the signs that our form was turning around post-bye. I rolled my eyes at talk of finals especially when accompanied by the words 'mathematical possibilities'. Our loss to the Saints confirmed my sense that, while better times weren't far away, in season 2019 we were still unreliable and flaky.
Secure in this belief, I ... it's hard for me to admit this ... made plans for a holiday in mid-September.
Who could have foreseen that we would flick the switch from stagnant to scintillating? Suddenly we, who'd at times played footy that was, well, tedious, looked like scoring every time we entered our forward zone.
(In fact we could rattle on 21 goals in a row while certain of our less fortunate opponents couldn't even manage one).
So now, here I was, right back in that zone where the thought of us stuffing this match up was overwhelming and unendurable. And I was stuck on the couch, having complacently failed to organise tickets early, only to be informed THE MATCH WAS A SELLOUT!
I'd been to every one of those icy Ballarat matches, been hailed upon, suffered through a defeat in rain-soaked clothes, and could personally attest to the fact that those stupid hand-warmers don't work...and I'd somehow failed to snare a gig at our most important match since You Know When!
While I fumed and panicked in equal measure, I realised the match was about to get underway.
The Bont, awesome and imposing, had a flinty look in his eyes. It was the same flinty look I'd seen when Jake The Lair stood opposite him at a centre bounce when we defeated the Bombres by 104 points (Sorry. Have I already mentioned that?) A look that said he is now The Man, and that responsibility doesn't trouble him one little bit. The Bont wrested the ball out of the centre and speared it towards Dailey Bailey. Minutes later he set him up for another goal, before kicking one on his non-preferred side himself.
With our superstar having made it his personal mission to get us over the line, Tragician thinking was speedily overcome.
So confident did I become that, a full seven minutes before the end of the match, with the Dogs 41 points ahead, I boldly tweeted: I THINK we're home.
When this daring prediction came through, I wished that, even wearing those ineffective hand-warmers, I'd been there among the crowd where the sounds and sights, as well as the average temperature, seem so much like the Western Oval.
So now... Our Boys have made the finals. We will play The Acronyms. At the scene of perhaps our greatest ever (certainly most emotional) victory. At the arena I dubbed Soul-less Stadium.
In the lull before next week's storm, I've had time to think some more about the bizarre and topsy-turvey nature of season 2019. There's a whole lot of contradictory things to get my head around.
Much has been made of the fact that, like 2016, we're again entering the finals series from seventh. But in our premiership year, we were in the eight every week, often in the top four, and won 15 games. Yet we were seen to limp into the eight, with the finals bye favouring us, while this year, with our momentum at a high, I find myself wishing we were playing again this weekend.
Then there's the paradox that last week we fielded the youngest and most inexperienced team across the whole competition ... yet somehow, though, our team also contained 10 premiership players (including Suckling and Duryea).
And another strange fact to mull over: that it was 10 minutes of inspired mayhem in the final quarter of Round two, where we came from 30 points down to beat the Hawks, that was the reason that we're playing finals at all, while those in brown and gold are not.
And another peculiar happening - that a bout of gastro afflicting Tim 'The Pom' English led to the first call-up of season 2019 for Young, Lewis..who now seems to have cemented his spot in the team. Young Lewis had played the whole season at Footscray alongside a premiership defender whose future with us now seems bleak, but who in the 2016 preliminary final kept Jeremy Cameron goal-less.
But I soon turn my thoughts away from the season that was, to the finals series that's ahead of us. My mind is full of questions, doubts, fears and hope. The Acronyms will be much more dangerous, with stars returning to their orange-clad ranks, compared to when we played them just two weeks ago. Will nasty Shane Mumford be recalled to try to iron out English? Could we retaliate, smuggling photos of Libba twirling his finger towards his head to indicate doubts about the intelligence of Heath Shaw into the Combustible One's locker? Will the Acronyms employ those pre-recorded boos towards Big Bad Marcus Bontempelli, the ones that they employed to attempt to create an atmosphere a couple of weeks ago? (The Tragician wasn't fooled one little bit).
Unlike that occasion, where we easily prevailed, the stands will be packed out with a heaving mass of red, white and blue. I'll be there, wearing my lucky Bonti scarf. (It doesn't matter that it didn't bring us luck in 2017 and 2018 - I'm now running with the story that its superpowers only emerge in finals matches).
I'll feel protective and maternal and proud when I see the starry-eyed young brigade run out for their first finals. I'll be reassured that alongside them are the calming and confident presence of our leaders Bont and Easton. I'll feel emotional seeing Rhylee West and Patrick Lipinski taking the field, knowing that both of them were at the 2016 Grand Final as keen young Bulldogs supporters, and now get to play their parts in shaping our 2019 destiny.
Yet I'll find it hard (sorry Bevo) to 'live in the now' as memories flood back. I'll be thinking of the men who aren't out there, and who won't take the field for us ever again. I'll feel shivers just looking at the spot where Jackson Macrae nailed the goal to put us into the Grand Final. Yet new memories are about to be made, and Tragician thinking is in full swing. It is both glorious and frightening at the same time and for the same reasons. Because it means footy really matters again.
A bit more than a year ago we adopted two dogs, terriers of indeterminate parentage, nine-year-old brothers who had fallen on hard times.
Once Maxi and Luka (you thought they’d be called Bont and Libba, didn’t you?) realized that this was finally their home for good, they took to protecting its borders with vigour.
Before their arrival, the cat from next door had spent most of its days sunning itself in our garden, strolling insolently across fences, or perched in high spots as it patrolled our property with little respect for its boundaries. Maxi and Luka have been zealous in ensuring – or attempting to ensure - this unacceptable situation would not continue.
Every morning when I open the front door to retrieve the paper, they charge out past me as though shot out of a cannon. Yet quite often, as they prowl around sniffing for evidence of the cat’s whereabouts, I can see, on the other side of the garden, the cat curled up quietly, exuding contempt for their pitiful bravado.
One morning recently I opened the door to find the cat had left a ‘present’ for the two of them – an emphatic, smelly statement - on the doormat. Unfortunately the dynamic duo sped past the poo-ey offering, hurtling instead towards the rose bushes, where there was no evidence of the cat whatsoever.
There’s a footy metaphor there, and I’m not afraid to milk it.
Loyal, feisty, dedicated yet somehow hapless Dogs…versus supercilious, scornful, arrogant, haughty Cats.
It's Geelong’s theme song, boldly proclaiming that they’re ‘the greatest team of all’ … while the Dogs can only muster:‘We give our very best.’
It’s Joel Selwood, with his patented sneer and curled upper lip (adopted with considerable success by Toby Green), versus the noble pedigree of The Bont.
Gary Ablett, with his uncanny resemblance to Voldemort, versus the swashbuckling good looks of our captain Easton Wood.
The petulant Scott brother factor, vs our Plantaganet-lookalike coach with his endearingly cryptic utterances.
No, I don’t like the Cats, who’ve tormented us for so long, any more than Maxi and Luka do.
Dislike, and fear of them doing to us what they’ve done so consistently over the past decade and more, isn’t the reason, however, that I’m not in attendance on Saturday night. A nasty bug has me in its grip.
I sit on the couch, surrounded by tissues, while Our Boys take on our sworn enemies, currently, of course, top of the ladder and certainties to inflict on us the bi-annual dose of pain and humiliation.
I decide not to actually watch the game in real time… and it’s not just for fear of a relapse if the Dogs perform poorly. Lately I’ve come to the conclusion it’s just too horrible and stress-inducing to watch footy on TV, where the mistakes get magnified, the commentators are annoying and banal, and you’re divorced from your fellow supporters and their emotions, unable to share their moans, groans, gasps and cheers.
A few sneaky looks at how the match is progressing on Twitter confirm that things are unfolding according to the 2019 template. There are mentions of turnovers, appalling skills, inexplicable misses in what sounds like a lackluster contest. Laments about why we keep kicking it to Bloody Harry Taylor make me relieved I'm not there, though it's only too easy to picture how it's unfolding.
I let out a pitiful sigh, which may just be the virus, or perhaps the accumulation of too many matches like this, where the cast of characters may change, but the outcome has a painful familiarity.
But, seeing that we’re still technically within reach, trailing by ten points (mind you, a big enough lead considering our struggles to score), a few minutes into the last quarter, I think I might as well switch on, just see how Our Boys are travelling.
Almost instantly, perhaps galvanised by my sniffly and croaky support, our team begin peppering the goals, and unbelievable things start to occur. I’m not sure which is the more startling and unexpected event – that the Dogs, despite playing in such heavy conditions in Adelaide, are finding another gear, going forward relentlessly again and again, with the Astro-Naut grabbing marks at will – or that both Joel Selwood AND Gary Ablett are pinned for holding the ball. This is such a rarity that each of them is incredulous, while the words ‘Sooky-la-la’, quite unbecoming from one of my vintage, escape my lips. (Not to mention an undignified fist pump when younger Bulldog brigade members, Smith of the Bailey variety and 'Monica' Lipinski, get right into the face of Joel Selwood after we score one of four quick-fire goals).
Maxi and Luka hastily decamp from my lap, which is no longer warm, comfortable and safe. I enter a state of agitation. We’re sixteen points up, but the Dogs of 2019 have found such leads hard to defend. And this is Geelong after all.
The Cats send the ball into their forward line. You just know Bloody Tom Hawkins will take a strong mark; but instead Easton Wood swashbuckles his way into the contest, leaping over the top of him to send the ball away with a mighty punch.
There are scrambles of play in the backline, where you can just imagine Voldemort snapping a miracle goal; instead, forward-line hero Astro-Naut is among the knot of players just metres from their goal-line, safely squeezing out a handball to his team-mates, who sweep it from the danger zone.
There’s Gary Rohan, running towards an open goal; but the giant mitts of The Bont wrap around him and avert disaster.
There’s Jackson Trengove, taking a well-judged mark on the last line of defence, and…(#$@%) kicking it straight back to Bloody Tom Hawkins.
Will The Greatest Team of All find another way to break our hearts, even though we really have Given Our Very Best?
I can hear the chaotic bedlam at the stadium, the frantic din of my fellow fans trying to will Our Boys home, and, stranded helplessly on the couch, I feel even sicker than ever.
There’s a massive play in the centre of the ground. That frail-looking, elfin Toby McLean, wraps a Geelong player who is about to propel the ball forward in a crunching, match-winning tackle. JJ sets off on a run. The Dogs have held on. The Dogs have beaten the Cats!!
In the euphoria I don't even mind that the two teams provide a guard of honour (WHAT?) for Tragician Hall of Infamy Megastar: Umpire Shane McInerney who's apparently clocked up a milestone...which presumably isn't the one that instantly springs to my mind - a record number of critical and blatantly unjustified free kicks paid against the Western Bulldogs.
The next morning, as I open the front door, Maxi and Luka zoom out into the garden with renewed energy and enthusiasm for their pointless chase.
There’s an extra spring in the steps of Dogs and those that love them, and the Cat From Next Door is nowhere to be seen.
about the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the Western Bulldogs.